Houston school's unexpected candlelit Mass is stark contrast to Gulf Coast's deadly storms

May 24, 2024

Dozens of windows are seen boarded up on a downtown Houston building May 22, 2024, after a major 100 mph windstorm and thunderstorm swept through the Gulf Coast, killing at least eight people and knocking out power for nearly a million Houston-area homes and businesses May 16. Officials said the storm shattered at least 2,500 windows and dozens of skylights in downtown Houston, raining glass onto the streets below. (James Ramos/Texas Catholic Herald)
 
HOUSTON — Just minutes before St. Cecilia Catholic School’s eighth-grade graduation Mass and ceremony began, the power to the west Houston parochial school cut out, plunging the large sanctuary into disturbing darkness.

Even with the surprise change in lighting, Father Francis Macatangay, pastor of St. Cecilia Parish and School, chose to celebrate the May 16 Mass by candlelight, with the flame from the towering Easter candle reflecting brightly off the church’s even taller white walls behind the altar into the pews.

Even though school officials said the unexpected candle-lit Mass and graduation ceremony was a “beautiful” celebration, the peace and stillness of the Liturgy was a stark contrast to the 100 mph winds that shredded homes and businesses in a 70-mile span of the nation’s fifth-most populous metropolitan region.

A strong line of sudden thunderstorms, dubbed a “derecho,” brought lightning, hurricane-force winds and floods, knocking out power for almost one million homes, businesses and parishes in the Archdiocese. Millions, either recovering or helping others recover, also contended with dangerous heat, with high humidity bringing heat indices into the 100°s in the days after the storm.

A derecho, also known as an inland hurricane, is a storm with wind damages that covers more than 240 miles with wind gusts of at least 58 mph on the storm path, according to the National Weather Service. The storm began west of Austin and continued through Houston and into Louisiana, where thousands also lost electricity.

The storms caused the Archdiocese to postpone four adult confirmation Masses because of the widespread destruction and power outages. Weather officials confirmed two tornadoes in Cypress and Waller County, twisting 100-foot transmission power lines into a crumpled mess, cutting electricity off to thousands. By Monday, May 20, electricity providers said nearly 224,000 were still without power. As temperatures rose, local officials opened more than 100 cooling centers as thousands were still without air conditioning.

In downtown Houston, the 100 mph winds shattered more than 2,500 windows and dozens of skylights across the city’s skyscrapers, raining down glass alongside the heavy rains. Video on social media showed a row of skylights eerily missing from the top of a major 400-foot downtown Houston hotel, allowing rain to cascade into the hotel’s lobby like a waterfall.

One post showed windows in a coffee shop flexing like a plastic bag, while another video showed pedestrians struggling against the wind, hiding under bus stops and clutching utility boxes as traffic barrels flew about like tumbling thimbles. Elsewhere, suburban families watched as homes still being constructed splintered like toothpicks.

At least eight deaths were attributed to the storm, including a mother of four who died after a tree fell on her car as she attempted to move it to safety during the storm and a man who died from carbon monoxide poisoning as thousands turned to gas generators to supply power, according to reports.

In Houston’s Heights neighborhood, visitors said it looked like a “war zone,” where hundreds of hallowed trees that provided longed-for shade from the Texas heat in the leafy green community now split dozens of homes in half, smashing roof tops, walls and cars.

At All Saints Parish in the Heights, Father Elias Lopez celebrated Sunday morning Mass for Pentecost, also in candlelight.

While the parish did not suffer significant damage, the church was still without power. Even with the church’s doors wide open, the morning sun made the air inside stifling, making the first reading about the tongues of fire too easy to imagine as the church warmed up.

Gonzalo Ramos, parish director of music and Liturgy, said he was moved by the dedication of the parishioners, ministry volunteers, lectors and staff — several dressed for the heat — who joined him and his fellow cantors and choir members in leading worship at four Masses throughout the weekend.

Ramos lauded Father Lopez for focusing on the Mass, despite the temperatures, throughout the weekend.

“[Father Lopez] delivered an inspirational homily while sharing prayers of hope, consolation, and uplifting for those affected by the storm,” Ramos said.
Ramos said, while he was at the parish office, something moved him to cancel the parish youth and adult choirs’ rehearsals, usually held on Thursday nights and rarely canceled.

Twenty minutes later, while at home, his wife was preparing dinner as he was tending to their son, a tornado warning came on the TV, prompting the family to jump into their “emergency closet,” where they “hunkered down” and prayed with flashlights while praying as they heard the storm, with its thunder, hail and winds, arrive and cut electricity.

In the weeks that followed, the sound of chainsaws and groaning of trees cracking into pieces echoed throughout Houston as residents continued to recover from the damage. A common sight in many neighborhoods were piles of trees and debris that stand more than 10 feet high.

The storm came just two weeks after another round of thunderstorms flooded dozens of communities along the San Jacinto River.

The floods prompted at least 400 high-water rescues from rooftops and cars and mandatory evacuations, many of which had flooded during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Sts. Simon and Jude Parish in The Woodlands activated its Red Cross shelter, just as it did during Harvey and several other storms. 

To donate to Houston relief efforts via the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Catholic Charities in Houston, visit www.svdphouston.org and www.catholiccharities.org.